Yesterday in the grocery store, an older woman came up to me and asked, “Excuse me– where did you get that coupon wallet?” It’s a cheap blue plastic expandable one I got in the dollar bins at Target, I told her, and showed her where the elastic cord was starting to fray, and that I would probably still keep using it when the cord snaps because it’s just so handy. Then we commiserated a little over how hard it is to find a nice coupon wallet that isn’t too big or too complicated.
Then later, in the checkout line, the little screen showed that I had saved a little over $30 on my total bill, between coupons and the store bonus card, and the cashier said, “Ma’am, you did well today! I’d like to go shopping with you sometimes!”
I felt a glow of satisfaction all the way home and thought about all the times I’d watched my stepmother clip and collate her coupons and sales circulars, planning with utmost precision which trips she’d have to make in order to maximize her grocery dollar and score the best possible deals. I have never aspired to that level of organization– I only go to one grocery store, the closest one to my house, and I don’t have shelf upon shelf of stored goods in the basement or a standing freezer down there (though a freezer has started to look more and more attractive lately). I’ve also never tried one of the couponing website services or scavenged extra copies of circulars or coupons from old newspapers thrown out for junk. But I have finally found a couponing system that works for me, and I get a little thrill each time I see the “money saved” total at the end of my receipt.
Here’s what I do: I get the Sunday paper delivered and clip coupons every Sunday. I keep three business-size white envelopes in a large clip on the fridge door, one for each month in a three-month span (right now: March, April, May). Once I’ve clipped all relevant coupons, I file them by expiration date in the envelopes. Then when I go to make a grocery list for the week, I also do a very basic meal planning list. I go through my coupon envelope and make a two-column grocery list, one for the items I have coupons for and the other for items like ground beef, sandwich bread, apples, bananas that may go on special but not for coupons. Once I get to the store, I use the circular to get deals and am willing to adjust my list for the best deals.
What do I use coupons for? Well, I buy most of our yogurt, boxed dry cereal, juice, and frozen vegetables with coupons. Our store gives away free gallons of milk once you’ve bought six, so I keep those coupons, and occasionally the soymilk my husband likes advertises coupons. Many of the coupons I clip are for non-food items– tissues, toilet paper, shampoo, dish soap, sponges, laundry soap, dryer sheets, cleaning products, nail polish, and more. Around the holidays, I had a lot of coupons for sugar, yeast, chocolate chips and other baking staples, and I bought all my Halloween candy with coupons. I come across cat food coupons fairly often, and coupons for eggs and cheese products (like string cheese or bagged shredded cheese) occasionally as well.
Caveats: I know a lot of people don’t use coupons because they think they’re only for overly processed foods or experimental new foods, which is partially true. If you have a lot of brand loyalties, it’s probably easier not to use coupons, but luckily, we are very flexible in that regard. Also, if you are committed to using only organic or recycled goods, then coupons may not be for you. I buy organic milk, eggs, cheese and butter, and stock up on the hormone-free organic beef and chicken when I find it in good supply, and I try for the “best” produce I can, but I realized long ago that our budget can’t handle regular trips to Whole Paycheck. A friend of mine does most of her grocery shopping at Wal-Mart and BJs, where the prices are lower, but I like to keep my trips simple and close by, since our schedule only seems to get busier each new year.
But for me, once I got a good system going, couponing has been a big help in my shopping, planning and budgeting. I rarely go grocery shopping without a list, which is often none of the top recommendations for saving money in the grocery store, and I rarely end up without having saved any money– my average is between $15-20 each trip. The newspaper subscription paid for itself in the first month. For many families, that number is not that significant, but for me, it’s a concrete way to help keep our expenses controllable.